Treasures of London – Nonsuch Palace from the South…

nonsuch-palaceThe earliest and most detailed depiction of King Henry VIII’s famed Nonsuch Palace, a watercolour by the celebrated Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel, has been recently acquired by the V&A. 

The painting, made in 1568, is the most faithful only six surviving images of the palace which was located in Cheam, Surrey. The fanciful building was commissioned by the king in 1538 and featured a facade decorated with elaborate plasterwork in Franco-Italianate style with the aim of rivalling the Fontainebleau residence of French King Francois I.

One of the most important buildings of the English Renaissance period, it was unfinished when the king died in 1547 and was subsequently purchased from Queen Mary I by Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, in 1557 – it was he who finished the building and most likely commissioned the Antwerp-born Hoefnagel to paint it. Later acquired by Queen Elizabeth I, it became one of her favourite residences and was eventually demolished by King Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland, between 1682 and 1688 to pay off gambling debts.

Nonsuch Palace from the South, which is the first major work of Hoefnagel to enter the collection, can be seen in the museum’s British Galleries in South Kensington. Entry is free. For more, see

PICTURE: Nonsuch Palace from the South, Joris Hoefnagel, 1558, Watercolour © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Lost London – Nonsuch Palace

Built as a symbol of the triumphal reign of the Tudor dynasty (not to mention as a response to the French King Francis I’s palace Château de Chambord), Nonsuch Palace near Ewell in Surrey, now part of greater London, was the last palace constructed by King Henry VIII.

Construction on the palace started in 1538, the 30th year of Henry’s reign and only six months after the birth of Henry’s son and heir, later King Edward VI. The medieval village of Cuddington was demolished to make way for the new premises.

The multi-storied building was designed around an inner and an outer courtyard, each entered through a fortified gatehouse, with the royal apartments located in the latter. While plain on the outside, the inner courtyard interior was decorated with stucco reliefs depicting, among other things, Roman emperors, gods and goddesses and Henry VIII with his son Edward. To cap it off, there were two great octagonal towers built at either end.

While the bulk of of the work had been completed when Henry died in 1547, it is believed that the palace may still have been unfinished. In any case, it only remained a royal property for a short time before Queen Mary I sold it to Henry Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel. It passed back into royal hands when the earl’s son-in-law, John Lumley, was forced to sell it back to Queen Elizabeth I to settle a debt. The queen was said to have stayed frequently at the palace.

King James I granted the palace to his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, and it was also used by his son Henry, Prince of Wales. King Charles I also granted the palace to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, before it was sold off by Parliamentary commissioners after the Civil War. When King Charles II came to the throne, the palace was once again given to Henrietta Maria and then, when she died in 1669, to Barbara Villers, Countess of Castlemaine, a mistress of the king.

The building was demolished in 1682 with the materials and sale of the land used to pay off the countess’ gambling debts. While some parts of the building were carted off to be incorporated into others, no trace of the building remains above the ground but its former site, on the west side of what is now Nonsuch Park in Cheam, is marked by three granite bollards. A separate banqueting house and extensive gardens were also built near the site.

The building, which was only depicted a few works, can be confused with Nonsuch Mansion House, the oldest parts of which date from the 18th century, which still stands on the east side of the park and was probably built on the site of a former keeper’s lodge.

There are exhibitions on the palace in the Honeywood Museum (the heritage centre for the London Borough of Sutton) in Carshalton and in the Tudor house known as Whitehall in Cheam. The Epson and Ewell History Explorer website also have a trail you can follow which encompasses the former site of the palace.

PICTURE: Nonsuch Palace in an engraving by Joris Hoefnagel. Source: Wikipedia.